“Are you my mother?” queries the chick of various animals and inanimate objects, searching high and low for its absent caregiver after having leaped from its nest. This children’s book by P.D. Eastman is a poignant metaphor for our relationship to the world and the spiritual path, as described in a recent dharma talk, “Crossing the Flood,” by meditation teacher Catherine McGee.
Unbeknownst to the chick, its mother is out hunting for food and will soon return. McGee explains that the chick’s jump from its safe nest is inspired by the same restless, nervous twitch to find “home” that drives many of us to seek external stimulation and activation. Underlying this this anxious searching is the desire for safety, completion, and nurturance. When our searching “programs” or samskara are activated, we repel the nurturing embrace of the nest, the present moment, seeking home rather in ultimately unsatisfying externalities.
While searching is innate, according to McGee, it can be problematic. Our place on earth is a call to something greater; something in us is instinctually called home. Yet we confuse home with the external stimuli that unfailingly beckon. Our searching is a conditioned program that detracts from the reality that home is right here, right now. When activated, this program leads us further and further from the mother within, engendering ever-greater anxiety and disconnection. Says McGee, “We’ve already left home in the beginning of the search.”
Consider technology. We are fused to our smartphones, social media, and emails, constantly flicking through for the latest news or contact, seeking for some activation, stimulation; some momentary evidence of our aliveness, connectedness, lovability. Yet in this searching we lose our home; the present moment. When waiting, driving, or surrounded by new people, instead of engaging, it is all too common to plug in and tune out, jumping the nest and blinding ourselves to the present’s warm embrace.
The metaphor generalizes to all domains. We often seek validation and reinforcement from others—a natural inclination—yet if we solely rely on this to feel a sense of home, or unconditional acceptance, disappointment is inevitable. Similarly, food can provide a momentary experience of pleasure and warmth, a temporary homecoming, but the pleasure quickly fades. On the spiritual path too, we bring our searching programs to bear in a quest for enlightenment, peace, purity, perfection…yet, says the Buddha, we are already there. While meditating, we may discover a moment of deep stillness, making us feel as if “at last, I’ve found it!” only to have our reverie shattered by a jacket rustling nearby.
Home is the jacket rustling, the empty ache, the sadness and loneliness, the pleasure…the full range of present-moment experience. Home comprises not only the pleasurable, happy, comfortable, warm, safe sensations, but also the sensations that rattle our bones, engender tears and sorrow, rage and anguish.
According to the Buddha, the program of incessant becoming—striving ever for more, faster, better, stronger, wiser, happier, and so on—is paralleled by the fear of not becoming. Meditation’s cultivation of the five spiritual faculties (indriya) described by the Buddha reboot our search programs and ground us home in the present. These faculties —including faith (shraddha), the energy of persistence (virya), mindfulness (smriti), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (prajna)— lead us to the end of becoming, and to the end of the desire to not become; to the deathless, awakening clear seeing of the samskaric programs that blunt our gaze and maintain our unconsciousness. Our awakeness, McGee shares, is “already here, already completely intact, [we are] never separated from it.”